Violence in Egypt: Neither Algeria nor Syria

Whenever the spectre of a new rupture between the Egyptian ‘deep state’ and the Islamists comes up, the Algerian comparison inevitably rears its head. On the surface it makes sense, especially this time round: a mass Islamist movement is deprived of governing – a right it won through the standard democratic process – by a military and entrenched interests who cannot stomach the idea of such a change of order. The Islamists would cry foul and take to the hills vowing they will be back to wreak their terrible revenge. Continue reading Violence in Egypt: Neither Algeria nor Syria

Qatar: For My Next Trick…

Qatar coup stories are of course dime-a-dozen. Doha has many potential enemies, from Iran and pro-Assad groups, to anti-Muslim Brotherhood regimes like Saudi Arabia who are with Qatar in the anti-Assad camp. The latest in the rumour mill is a bit more intriguing – that the Emir could be preparing to transfer much if not most of his powers to the heir apparent Prince Tameem. Continue reading Qatar: For My Next Trick…

The UK in Syria – and Qatar in the UK

Britain has become notably more gung-ho about Syria in recent months. The government, and parliament, are split over arming the anti-Assad rebels, but the prime minister David Cameron, his foreign minister William Hague and others are pushing for arming the anti-Assad forces, while placing hope on the proposed Geneva conference for some kind of negotiated resolution of the conflict. Britain played a key role along with France in the EU’s recent decision to allow member states to arm the rebels, though the UK government is saying it won’t take any definitive action until Geneva has taken place. But a clear shift in the UK position has taken place in recent months. Continue reading The UK in Syria – and Qatar in the UK

Not Time To Declare ‘Sykes-Picot’ Dead Just Yet

The words ‘Sykes-Picot’ must have been bandied around more than at any time since 1916 over the past few months. The sense that the region is in the midst of a reshaping of borders, identities, nationalities has been evolving since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the blatant appeal to sectarianism by the occupying powers. That shouldn’t be a surprise because foreign powers, anywhere, have always played the policy of divide-and-rule. That’s what Sykes-Picot, with its spheres of British and French interests – was all about. The Middle East subsequently featured areas of British and American influence in the Gulf, Russian interest in a range of states including Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Iraq et al. with varying degrees of longevity, and the establishment of a Jewish settler state in Palestine. None of that was part-and-parcel of the Sykes-Picot arrangement per se, but it still accorded with the general principles. Continue reading Not Time To Declare ‘Sykes-Picot’ Dead Just Yet

Israel attacks Syria: A Night on Twitter

The Israeli rocket strikes on Mount Qasioun last night produced an almost immediate explosion of Twitter commentary, despite the wee hours when the action took place. Those opposed to the Syrian opposition – whether for fear of the Jihadists or Syria falling into the hands of a Saudi-Israeli-US axis – were sort of triumphant at seeing the rebels exposed on the same battlefield as the Israelis, while there was perhaps some embarrassment dressed up as bravura from the other side. Either way, the massacred civilians of Banias have fallen off the news cycle, not that global media attention has really made any difference to anything, despite the intense glare directed at this most horrific of conflicts.* Continue reading Israel attacks Syria: A Night on Twitter

Homogenising the Middle East

The destruction of a synagogue in Damascus is the latest manifestation of a fundamental, and troubling, shift going on in the Middle East. The Jobar Synagogue, thought to be 2,000 years old, was looted and burned to the ground. Both the government and the Islamist-dominated rebels are denying they were behind it, but either way the incident appears to have been a deliberate act. It’s not the first time historical sites have been damaged in the suicidal violence of the Syrian civil war, nor the first time that minorities have been targetted. Continue reading Homogenising the Middle East

Brotherhood cannot dominate post-Assad Syria – deputy leader

By Andrew Hammond

DOHA | Thu Nov 15, 2012 11:36pm IST

(Reuters) – The Muslim Brotherhood has no intention of monopolising the revolt in Syria, the group’s deputy leader said, despite fears its close ties with Qatar and Turkey would help it eventually impose a Sunni-dominated government based on sharia law.

Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni said in an interview in Doha that the Brotherhood would hope to reach a consensus on the introduction of sharia but would not impose it. Continue reading Brotherhood cannot dominate post-Assad Syria – deputy leader

Mistrust of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood lingers

By Rania El Gamal and Andrew Hammond

DOHA | Mon Nov 12, 2012 6:38pm EST

(Reuters) – Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood finally swung behind a new opposition unity deal in Qatar, but some Syrians fear it will work in the new entity to replicate the influence it wields in the narrower Syrian National Council. Continue reading Mistrust of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood lingers

Film shows spread of conservative Islam in secular Syria

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Dec 19, 2011 1:36pm EST

(Reuters) – A film about one of thousands of Koranic schools for girls in Syria has shocked some Syrians but impressed others with the implication that one of the bastions of Arab secularism has become a deeply religious society.

In “The Light In Her Eyes,” Houda al-Habash opens up the mosque and school she runs where hundreds of teenage girls, sent there by their parents, spend the summer learning to memorize the Koran and take religious study classes that conclude with most of them taking to the hijab, or Muslim headscarf.

The documentary’s directors, Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, said they wanted to show that the conservatism depicted in the film reflects the mainstream in Syria today and should be seen as progressive in many respects.

“My experience was Syria and there is this religious population that’s growing and that’s a story that needs to be told about moderate Islam and it’s a story we don’t see, especially in the West,” said Meltzer, who taught journalism at Damascus University in 2005 and 2006.

Speaking to Reuters at the Dubai International Film Festival which ended this weekend, she said that this Islamist community is more organized in many respects than state institutions.

“What I saw in that educational environment (university) was that people did not arrive on time, teachers didn’t really seem to take things seriously,” Meltzer said. “In contrast to that world, going to Houda’s mosque was a really eye-opening, and complex, experience for me where girls were encouraged to read.”

Houda lectures the girls that the veil is an Islamic duty — a view that many Muslims would dispute — that God intended as protection and which for Houda is part of a process of empowering girls to play an active role in society as Muslims.

“The flag is the symbol of the state, but the hijab is the symbol of Islam … you have not been faithful to the symbol,” she tells the girls in one of her group pep talks. “God made the hijab an obligation to protect women from inappropriate looks and preserve her for her husband.”

However, she also tells them in another talk: “Does a woman have a right to be the president of the republic? Yes. Don’t let go your mind, or your choice” — an opinion that is the subject of dispute among Islamist political movements today.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has equivocated on whether women could rise the top positions in the state, while the leader of the Ennahda movement that won elections this year in Tunisia — another bastion of Arab secularism in the post-colonial era — says even non-Muslims could occupy such posts.


The directors splice the documentary with short segments from conservative preachers who argue on television that Muslim women should stay at home, avoid education and not work at all.

This debate between different visions of correct Islamic conduct is far more significant in Syria today than the polemic between secularists and Islamists over the religious values, women and politics, Meltzer said.

“That is the bigger question. Those people who are Salafi-influenced, more conservative, they don’t engage in dialogue,” she said. “The secular community in Syria has definitely been getting smaller.”

Syria has been gripped by unrest since activists began protesting for democratic changes in one of the most tightly run police states in the region.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad argues that it is facing an armed insurrection by Islamists dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood whose rise to power would destroy the balance that Assad’s secular state has maintained. Assad’s Baath party has relied heavily on his Alawite sect to run the security, military and other key arms of the state.

Meltzer said it was not clear to her while living in Syria and filming, the extent of any Brotherhood role in the moderate Islamic conservativism she witnessed and documents in the film.

She said there were only a handful of such girls’ schools in 1982, the year Assad’s father Hafez crushed a Brotherhood revolt, but now there are thousands.

The film includes scenes of girls whose families have sent them to the school deciding to take the veil after gentle persuasion in Houda’s lectures and one-on-one discussion.

Some Syrian expatriates during one screening were shocked at these scenes, but Meltzer said she wanted to leave the viewers to make their own decisions about the Islamic education and lifestyle depicted.

“I’m not convinced yet, but I’ll get used to it,” one girl tells Houda before her veiling ceremony. “It protects women, it shows you’re a Muslim person,” Houda says, adding: “No one can force anyone.”

The camera brings out many of the contradictions facing the young women.

The girls discuss the hair styles of television presenters and visit fashion shops which they leave after concluding they could never wear the fancy dresses on display.

Satellite channels subject them to a barrage of entertainment programming which Houda says is hindering their ability to focus on learning the Koran. The overwhelming impression is of happy growing teenagers, however.

Houda’s daughter Enas, a forthright 20-year-old studying at the American University in Sharjah, one of the more conservative cities of the United Arab Emirates, says she sees education as affording a chance to engage in Islamic missionary work that people of her mother’s generation did not have.

“I can see I can serve Islam by studying politics or economy. My mum didn’t have that,” she says in fluent American-accented English.

The film’s finale involves a celebration with the girls who have succeeded in memorizing the entire Muslim holy book dressed as if for a wedding in white dresses and tiaras.

They sing a song from which the title is derived: “Now we are veiled, there is light in our eyes.”

Media grapple with Syria in the dark

Mark Twain once wrote that rumours of his death had been an exaggeration. It’s become fashionable to herald the imminent death of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but I wonder if we’re not jumping the gun. Media reporting about a situation like the Syrian protest movement and the Damascus’ government efforts to crush and coopt it can have a kind of snowball effect. International outlets are mostly shut out of Syria, they rely on information from residents who may or may not be linked to rights or opposition groups and footage that some of these organisations and individual activists manage to get outside the country and propagate. Without the ability to make judgements from inside the country about what’s going on, media are really hamstrung.

Assessing how many have died is a case in point. Media like facts and statistics, the better to judge and describe a situation. This week, reports from the rights, opposition, activists and ordinary people said on Sunday that the army’s assault on Hama had killed up to 140 people. With some news outlets that figure had been scaled back to around 80 the next day. One group being cited is Avaaz, a U.S.-based online advocacy group for democracy. Avaaz said, as of 2 August, that since 15 March 1,634 have died, 2,918 people have disappeared, and of 26,000 arrested 12,617 remained in detention in Syria, but how they could know with such accuracy I do not know. Continue reading Media grapple with Syria in the dark